Filial Piety from the Grave


  1. My brother and Me


My brother and I meant the world to my father. Having grown up as a single child, my father considered his two children as precious as gold. My mother passed away from illness the year that I turned nine years-old. My father was still young at the time, but despite neighbors and friends urging him to remarry, my father did not even consider it.


My father was a man of few words to begin with but after my mother passed away, he spoke even less.


Like my father, my older brother also did not like talking much, so when I stayed at home I had to be mute. I was more like my mother; because my personality was more outgoing and I did not enjoy silence, I spent most of my time out of the house. Looking back, it was a habitual practice to sleep over at friends’ houses, perhaps to the disdain of my father. I was often reprimanded for such behaviors.


My father worked at a fish farm and made sure that my brother and I had plenty of fish to eat. After working through the night, my father always took a mesh net and brought home large fishes, like the carp. I found out later that my father took those fishes without notifying the administrative officials. My father was a long time worker in the fishing industry and his reputation of being a quiet man who worked hard prevented others from suspecting him of stealing.


On holidays, my father washed our laundry instead of resting at home and whenever he saw a newly made notebook at the store he would buy it immediately, bring it home, and without a word place it on the bookshelf. Images of him are still so vivid in my mind.


My father had more interest in my brother than me.


It may be because my brother was the eldest son and, different from me, he was well-behaved and studied well. But nevertheless, I was jealous at times. This may have perpetuated my desire to not stay at home much.


Then one day, my father changed 180 degrees. During a time of chronic food shortage, it became impossible for my father to provide for us with just his primary occupation that he started to sell things in the market place. At night my father tried to catch fish using nets and rods on the Yalu River and during the day he would sell those in the markets.


I had no idea when my father went to bed and woke up each day. When he caught a lot of fish, my father handed them over to the market ladies and my father did all that he could so that my brother and I could survive.


By the time I was finishing middle school, I started to mature a bit. My brother, who was over 19 years old and attending advanced school, fell in love one day. My brother fell head over heels, and his previously structured daily routine starting falling apart. It became common for him to come home late and he even started staying out overnight like me. During this time, my father was ill and spent most of his time in bed. When I looked into my father’s sunken eyes, it all of a sudden hit me that I could lose my father any day.


In those days, North Korea was facing a time of severe hardship.


Maybe it was because of the rampant death everywhere, but negative thoughts filled my mind. When people from my father’s generation met together, they would say that was a greater blessing to be dead than alive.


I don’t know why that phrase resonated so strongly with me; from then on I tried to always stay by my father’s side. I went with him to catch fish and I helped him carry the heavy loads. I even studied hard. My transformation was surprising and I started to notice the pleasure in my father’s eyes when he looked upon his youngest son.


On the contrary, my father frowned at my brother when he brought girls over to the house.


  1. Crossing the Yalu River


Poverty began to threaten our family of three’s livelihood.


The number of fishermen quickly increased and it became difficult to make a living off of just fishing. Even at a young age, I knew that my father could not provide for the family alone, especially considering his failing health. The year that I turned 18, I started following older boys in the neighborhood to cross the border.

We secretly crossed the river and when I went to the autonomous county of Jangbaek, where the Chinese Koreans were living, my eyes were wide open.


They were living so well. Cooked rice was something that was difficult to find in North Korea even during the holidays, but there even the dogs were sick of eating it. It was bewildering. North Korean television and channel 3 of central broadcasting stated plainly that our country was the happiest in the world but it all seemed so wrong.


Everything I laid my eyes on were new and things that I wanted for myself. I understood why the older boys in the neighborhood crossed the Yalu River every night. If they could barter for food and used family supplies, the earnings were substantial.


I could sense the guilt in my father’s eyes when my labor paid for our meals. I think my father felt bad that I had to grow up too quickly.


But given the circumstances, I could not give up just because I was young. The whole nation was suffering from severe hunger. Those who were living near the Yalu River were luckier; the fact that Hyesan was a border town allowed us more leeway to do something about our situation.


However, it became more and more difficult to live our lives. As the days passed, border controls became more strict and enforced.


In 2006, I bid farewell to my father. Crossing the border back and forth was no longer sufficient for acquiring provisions for my family. At this time in our city of Hyesan, there was a heightened sense of longing for South Korea. I had made my decision. I was convinced that one of us had to settle down in the South in order for our family to live. Even my father with his lingering illness could not convince me otherwise. After asking my brother to look after our father, I crossed the river yet again.


Things felt different than when I was just crossing the river back and forth; things were more complicated. It was a sad reality parting ways with the land of my birth and childhood. I cried my eyes out, turning back to look at my native land again and again, and eventually I walked away without making any promises.


From Jangbaek to Jilin and on to Beijing, I followed the instructions of the broker into Inner Mongolia. In an unnamable assembly place, I unexpectedly met my brother. I was beyond surprised.


“Brother, what in the world happened?”


“What’s dad going to do if you leave, too?”


My voice shook in a sense of shame. I thought I had pleaded with my brother enough, how can he as an eldest son do this to our father? But I knew that we could not turn back time. Dead or alive, all that was left was for us to get to South Korea.


I bit my lips and stared off into the northern sky where my father would be.


  1. The sad currents of the Yalu River


The world was so rich.


I still have a lot to figure out about South Korean society, but one thing that I know for a fact is that I don’t have to worry about food, clothing or fuel here.


Starvation that tortured everyone in North Korea was not present in the South. Here, the harder you worked the more money you made. I tried to work diligently at everything I could get my hands on.


During times when things got difficult or when I partook in a tasty meal, the sight of my father lying in bed always came into mind. I shed a lot of tears and even when things were going well, I could not fully enjoy myself. With his two sons gone, my father had no one left who could take care of him. Thinking about my father’s tendency to stubbornly refused other people’s help, it made my stomach heavy.


I took 1,000,000 Won from my first pay check and sent it to my father through friends who I had met crossing the border. One day I had a telephone conversation with a friend who had just crossed the river into Jangbaek. The words that came out of his mouth broke my heart.


“You bastard, your father needs his children more than money, do you know what I mean? Because we are here, your father has not starved to death, but we are not his sons. You jerks, how could both of you just run away like that?”


I was seething inside. The greatest blessing to my elderly and ill father would be seeing his two sons whenever he wanted. I wondered how sad and lonely my father must be, thinking that his two children had left for a place of no return.


I was tormented for a few months and finally made up my mind. I used up all my savings to purchase an airplane ticket to China. I arrived at Jangbaek and after a week’s work of careful planning, I managed to help my father escape.


After midnight, I took a taxi driven by a Korean and arrived at a remote rural village. From this place where Chinese evacuees lived, you could see the currents of the Yalu River in one glance.


Listening to the currents mimicking the sound of weeping, I embraced my father, who had just crossed the river, in my arms and burst into tears.


There was nothing but bones left on my father, and his shrunken image rankled in my heart. If I could safely bring my father to South Korea, I would give him the proper love that I had failed to as a son.


I told myself that I would make up for the two years that my father had to endure alone, and I led my father into the taxi that I came in.


In the next moments, I noticed a chilling gaze in my father’s eyes. It was a dark night but I floundered in his sight for a moment. I imagined the worst as I stared back at into my father’s eyes.


“Where are you taking me?”


Does he really not know? Or is he saying this because he disapproves of my conduct? So many thoughts were jumbled like a thread.


“I came to bring you elsewhere.”



“I understand your sentiments, but I cannot leave.”

“Why? Why can’t you leave? Let’s go. I don’t want to be an undutiful son anymore.”

“I understand. But still, Cheon-ryong, I cannot leave.”

My father turned around. Ahead of us the roaring of the Yalu River was making a fierce noise.


“I crossed the river just to see your face again. It has been more than enough for me to see you and even talk to you. Of course I would want to be where my sons are, but I cannot leave the land where my late father is buried. I cannot leave my motherland. I, for one, did not properly serve my own father!”



I knelt down before my father.


My father put his hands on my shivering shoulders and patted me without a word. I looked up into my father’s eyes. I will never forget the heroic spirit of my father who carried such deep stories in his heart. All the words that were never spoken by my father, I now understand.


“Please don’t hold it against me that I won’t go with you. I hope the two of you can live a happy life. When this divided land is united into one, please leave me one stem of hibiscus on my grave.”


Not long after this incident, my father passed away.


I feel guilty that I had to leave before I could pour a drink in honor of my late father. I wonder when I will be able to bow before my father’s grave and cry freely… My father was buried next to his father, my late grandfather, that he so longed for. Perhaps that is the ultimate act of filial piety that a loving son can offer. But I know the pain of not being able to do even that. The reality of our broken homeland is very cruel.


Shin Cheon-ryong’s memoir


Translated by Sooyeon Kang